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Voices In The Void








From: Desert Dust

The directions had been plain. With the North Star and the moon as our
guides we scarcely could fail to strike the stage road where it bore off
from the mountains northward into the desert.

For the first half mile we rode without a word from either of us to
violate the truce that swathed us like the night. What her thoughts were I
might not know, but they sat heavy upon her, closing her throat with the
torture of vain self-reproach. That much I sensed. But I could not
reassure her; could not volunteer to her that I welcomed her company, that
she was blameless, that I had only defended my honor, that affairs would
have reduced to pistol work without impulse from her--that, in short, the
responsibility had been wholly Daniel's. My own thoughts were so grievous
as to crush me with aching woe that forebade civil utterance.

This, then, was I: somebody who had just killed a man, had broken from the
open trail and was riding, he knew not where, through darkness worse than
night, himself an outlaw with an outlawed woman--at the best a chance
woman, an adventuring woman, and as everybody could know, a claimed
woman, product of dance hall and gaming resort, wife of a half-breed
gambler, and now spoil of fist and revolver.

But that which burned me almost to madness, like hot lava underneath the
deadening crust, was the thought that I had done a deed and a defensible
deed, and was fleeing from it the same as a criminal. Such a contingency
never had occurred to me or I might have taken a different course, still
with decency; although what course I could not figure.

We rode, our mules picking their way, occasionally stumbling on rocks and
shrubs. At last she spoke in low, even tones.

"What do you expect to do with me, please?"

"We shall have to do whatever is best for yourself," I managed to answer.
"That will be determined when we reach the stage line, I suppose."

"Thank you. Once at the stage line and I shall contrive. You must have no
thought of me. I understand very well that we should not travel far in
company--and you may not wish to go in my direction. You have plans of
your own?"

"None of any great moment. Everything has failed me, to date. There is
only the one place left: New York State, where I came from. I probably can
work my way back--at least, until I can recoup by telegraph message and
the mails."

"You have one more place than I," she replied. She hesitated. "Will you
let me lend you some money?"

"I've been paid my wages due," said I. "But," I added, "you have a place,
you have a home: Benton."

"Oh, Benton!" She laughed under breath. "Never Benton. I shall make shift
without Benton."

"You will tell me, though?" I urged. "I must have your address, to know
that you reach safety."

"You are strictly business. I believe that I accused you before of being a
Yankee." And I read sarcasm in her words.

Her voice had a quality of definite estimation which nettled, humbled, and
isolated me, as if I lacked in some essential to a standard set.

"So you are going home, are you?" she resumed. "With the clothes on your
back, or will you stop at Benton for your trunk?"

"With the clothes on my back," I asserted bitterly. "I've no desire to see
Benton. The trunk can be shipped to me."

She said on, in her cool impersonal tone.

"That is the easiest way. You will live warm and comfortably. You will
need to wear no belt weapon. The police will protect you. If a man injures
you, you can summon him at law and wash your hands of him. Instead of
staking on your luck among new people, you can enter into business among
your friends and win from them. You can marry the girl next door--or even
take the chance of the one across the street, her parentage being comme il
faut. You can tell stories of your trip into the Far West; your children
will love to hear of the rough mule-whacker trail--yes, you will have
great tales but you will not mention that you killed a man who tried to
kill you and then rode for a night with a strange woman alone at your
stirrup. Perhaps you will venture to revisit these parts by steam train,
and from the windows of your coach point out the places where you suffered
those hardships and adventures from which you escaped by leaving them
altogether. Your course is the safe course. By all means take it, Mr.
Beeson, and have your trunk follow you."

"That I shall do, madam," I retorted. "The West and I have not agreed;
and, I fear, never shall."

"By honest confession, it has bested you; and in short order."

"In short order, since you put it that way. Only a fool doesn't know when
to quit."

"The greatest fool is the one who fools himself, in the quitting as in
other matters. But you will have no regrets--except about Daniel,
possibly."

"None whatever, save the regret that I ever tried this country. I wish to
God I had never seen it--I did not conceive that I should have to take a
human life--should be forced to that--become like an outlaw in the night,
riding for refuge----" And I choked passionately.

"You deserve much sympathy," she remarked, in that even tone.

I lapsed into a turbulence of voiceless rage at myself, at her, at
Daniel's treachery, at all the train, at Benton, and again at this damning
predicament wherein I had landed. When I was bound to wrest free after
having done my utmost, she appeared to be twitting me because I would not
submit to farther use by her. I certainly had the right to extricate
myself in the only way left.

So I conned over and over, and my heart gnawed, and the acid of vexation
boiled in my throat, and despite the axle grease my arm nagged; while we
rode unspeaking, like some guilty pair through purgatory.

My lip had subsided; the pistol wound was superficial. Under different
circumstances the way would have been full of beauty. The high desert
stretched vastly, far, far, far before, behind, on either side, the
parched gauntness of its daytime aspect assuaged and evanescent. For the
moon, now risen, although on the wane, shed a light sufficient, whitening
the rocks and the scattered low shrubs, painting the land with sharp black
shadows, and enclosing us about with the mystery of great softly illumined
spaces into which silent forms vanished as if tempting us aside. Of
these--rabbits, wolves, animals only to be guessed--there were many, like
potential phantoms quickened by the touch of the moonbeams. Mule-back, we
twain towered, the sole intruders visible between the two elysians of
glorified earth and beatific sky.

The course was southward. After a time it seemed to me that we were
descending from the plateau; craunching gradually down a flank until, in a
mile or so, we were again upon the level, cutting through another basin
formed by the dried bed of an ancient lake whose waters had evaporated
into deposits of salt and soda.

At first the mules had plodded with ears pricked forward, and with sundry
snorts and stares as if they were seeing portents in the moonshine.
Eventually their imaginings dulled, so that they now moved careless of
where or why, their heads drooped, their minds devoted to achieving what
rest they might in the merely mechanical setting of hoof before hoof.

I could not but be aware of my companion. Her hair glinted paly, for she
rode bareheaded; her gown, tightened under her as she sat astride,
revealed the lines of her boyish limbs. She was a woman, in any guise; and
I being a man, protect her I should, as far as necessary. I found myself
wishing that we could upturn something pleasant to talk about; it was
ungracious, even wicked, to ride thus side by side through peace and
beauty, with lips closed and war in the heart, and final parting as the
main desire.

But her firm pose and face steadily to the fore invited with no sign; and
after covertly stealing a glance or two at her clear unresponsive profile
I still could manage no theme that would loosen my tongue. Thereby let
her think me a dolt. Thank Heaven, after another twenty-four hours at most
it might not matter what she thought.

The drooning round of my own thoughts revolved over and over, and the
scuffing gait of the mules upon way interminable began to numb me.
Lassitude seemed to be enfolding us both; I observed that she rode laxly,
with hand upon the horn and a weary yielding to motion. Words might have
stirred us, but no words came. Presently I caught myself dozing in the
saddle, aroused only by the twitching of my wounded arm. Then again I
dozed, and kept dozing, fairly dead for sleep, until speak she did, her
voice drifting as from afar but fetching me awake and blinking.

"Hadn't we better stop?" she repeated.

That was a curious sensation. When I stared about, uncomprehending, my
view was shut off by a whiteness veiling the moon above and the earth
below except immediately underneath my mule's hoofs. She herself was a
specter; the weeds that we brushed were spectral; every sound that we made
was muffled, and in the intangible, opaquely lucent shroud which had
enveloped us like the spirit of a sea there was no life nor movement.

"What's the matter?" I propounded.

"The fog. I don't know where we are."

"Oh! I hadn't noticed."

"No," she said calmly. "You've been asleep."

"Haven't you?"

"Not lately. But I don't think there's any use in riding on. We've lost
our bearings."

She was ahead; evidently had taken the lead while I slept. That
realization straightened me, shamed, in my saddle. The fog, fleecy, not so
wet as impenetrable--when had it engulfed us?

"How long have we been in it?" I asked, thoroughly vexed.

"An hour, maybe. We rode right into it. I thought we might leave it, but
we don't. It's as thick as ever. We ought to stop."

"I suppose we ought," said I.

And at the moment we entered into a sudden clearing amidst the fog
enclosure: a tract of a quarter of an acre, like a hollow center, with the
white walls held apart and the stars and moon faintly glimmering down
through the mist roof overhead.

She drew rein and half turned in the saddle. I could see her face. It was
dank and wan and heavy-eyed; her hair, somewhat robbed of its sheen,
crowned with a pallid golden aureole.

"Will this do? If we go on we'll only be riding into the fog again."

I was conscious of the thin, apparently distant piping of frogs.

"There seems to be a marsh beyond," she uttered.

"Yes, we'd better stop where we are," I agreed. "Then in the morning we
can take stock."

"In the morning, surely. We may not be far astray." She swung off before I
had awkwardly dismounted to help her. Her limbs failed--my own were
clamped by stiffness--and she staggered and collapsed with a little
laugh.

"I'm tired," she confessed. "Wait just a moment."

"You stay where you are," I ordered, staggering also as I hastily landed.
"I'll make camp."

But she would have none of that; pleaded my one-handedness and insisted
upon cooperating at the mules. We seemed to be marooned upon a small rise
of gravel and coarsely matted dried grasses. The animals were staked out,
fell to nibbling. I sought a spot for our beds; laid down a buffalo robe
for her and placed her saddle as her pillow. She sank with a sigh, tucking
her skirt under her, and I folded the robe over.

Her face gazed up at me; she extended her hand.

"You are very kind, sir," she said, in a smile that pathetically curved
her lips. There, at my knees, she looked so worn, so slight, so childish,
so in need of encouragement that all was well and that she had a friend to
serve her, that with a rush of sudden sympathy I would--indeed I could
have kissed her, upon the forehead if not upon the lips themselves. It was
an impulse well-nigh overmastering; an impulse that must have dazed me so
that she saw or felt, for a tinge of pink swept into her skin; she
withdrew her hand and settled composedly.

"Good-night. Please sleep. In the morning we'll reach the stage road and
your troubles will be near the end."

Under my own robe I lay for a long time reviewing past and present and
discussing with myself the future. Strangely enough the present occupied
me the most; it incorporated with that future beyond the fog, and when I
put her out back she came as if she were part and parcel of my life. There
was a sense of balance; we had been associates, fellow tenants--in fact,
she was entwined with the warp and woof of all my memories dating far back
to my entrance, fresh and hopeful, into the new West. It rather
flabbergasted me to find myself thinking that the future was going to be
very tame; perhaps, as she had suggested, regretful. I had not apprehended
that the end should be so drastic.

And whether the regrets would center upon my slinking home defeated, or in
having definitely cast her away, puzzled me as sorely as it did to
discover that I was well content to be here, with her, in our little
clearing amidst the desert fog, listening to her soft breathing and
debating over what she might have done had I actually kissed her to
comfort her and assure her that I was not unmindful of her really brave
spirit.

Daniel had been disposed of, Montoyo did not deserve her; I had won her,
she could inspire and guide me if I stayed; and I saw myself staying, and
I saw myself going home, and I already regretted a host of things, as a
man will when at the forking of the trails.

The fog gently closed in during the night. When I awakened we were again
enshrouded by the fleece of it, denser than when we had ridden through it,
but now whiter with the dawn. As I gazed sleepily about I could just make
out the forms of the two mules, standing motionless and huddled; I could
see her more clearly, at shorter distance--her buffalo robe moist with the
semblance of dew that had beaded also upon her massy hair.

Evidently she had not stirred all night; might be still asleep. No; her
eyes were open, and when I stiffly shifted posture she looked across at
me.

"Sh!" she warned, with quick shake of head. The same warning bade me
listen. In a moment I heard voices.





Next: I Stake Again

Previous: The Trail Forks



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